Golden State vs. Toronto: Five things to watch in NBA Finals

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The Golden State Warriors are looking to cement their dynasty status before what will be a summer of change.

The Toronto Raptors are trying to cap off a franchise-best playoff run with the first NBA title ever to go north of the border.

One way or another, NBA history will be made with these NBA Finals, the first ones ever to have games take place outside the United States.

This is also a series with the three players trying to vie for the mythical title of “best player on the planet” with LeBron James having not made the playoffs — Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Stephen Curry. It’s a Finals that will feature other great players (Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kyle Lowry) and players on the rise such as Pascal Siakam.

Here are the five things to watch that will likely swing this series toward Toronto or Golden State.

1. When does Kevin Durant return?

This is the storyline of the series because it changes everything. Durant is out for Game 1, and while nothing is official (and he did travel with the team) Warriors coach Steve Kerr made it sound like Durant will be out for at least Game 2 Sunday as well. Whether he returns for Game 3 or not may depend in part on what happens in the first two games and how badly the Warriors feel they need him.

With Durant out, Raptors coach Nick Nurse can put Leonard and his physical, elite defense wherever it will do the most damage. Leonard can be on Curry if he gets hot, on Thompson (probably where he starts), Andre Iguodala (so Leonard can help more and be disruptive that way), or whatever causes the Warriors the most trouble. It also means Siakam can cover Green, then switch onto Curry and use his length when the Warriors use their go-to Curry/Green pick-and-roll. The Raptors will be in position to crank up the defensive pressure.

All that goes away when Durant returns. Leonard has to spend the bulk of his time on Durant, which is going to mean more favorable matchups for Curry, Thompson, and Green. Plus, Durant becomes another long, quality defender they can throw at Leonard on the other end (along with Iguodala, Thompson, and Green.

Durant’s return changes a lot in this series, the questions are when will it happen, and where will the series stand when it does.

2. Kawhi Leonard has to continue to be the playmaker he was against Milwaukee.

For the first four games against Milwaukee, Leonard averaged 2.5 assists per game.

However, over the final two games he had 16 assists — it was the best playmaking we had ever seen from Leonard. As the Bucks threw multiple defenders at him, Leonard found his teammates, and they knocked down the shots. The Raptors offense has generally seen less ball movement with Leonard in the game, but not the last two.

That has to continue against the Warriors if the Raptors are going to win.

Leonard is playing as well as anyone in the world right now, but he can’t do this alone. The Warriors are a good defensive team — even better with Durant out — and while Leonard will get his, it will be making sure he finds Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and the rest of the Raptors, and that they hit their shots, that will give Toronto a chance.

Put more simply: The second biggest question in this series is will the Raptors be able to score enough to keep up with the Warriors? Leonard has to be a playmaker for that to happen.

3. Can the Raptors switching defense slow Curry in the pick-and-roll?

To beat the Warriors in a series will require a team that can switch a lot defensively — similar to what the Rockets did a season ago — and the Raptors have the long, athletic roster that can pull that off.

On paper. Yes, they have Leonard, Siakam, Danny Green, and they should get OG Anunoby back this series, all guys built for this kind of switching defense. That said, having the players for it and executing it against the Warriors is another thing. Especially the way Curry is playing right now — and Curry is motivated chasing the Finals MVP he wants so badly.

Of course, the Warriors have a counter. If the Raptors switching defense does work well, expect to see Durant back and more DeMarcus Cousins — those are the guys they lean on to punish switches. They are walking mismatches. By the way, don’t expect to see a lot of Cousins this series, but he can have an impact in short stints.

4. Danny Green has to find his shot.

Danny Green struggled mightily with his shot in the Eastern Conference Finals — he hit just one of his last 15 three-point attempts and was 4-of-23 for the series. Coach Nick Nurse turned to Fred VanVleet off the bench, and in the final couple of games (after VanVleet’s wife had their son), it worked brilliantly as VanVleet was lighting it up.

The problem is the Warriors will light him up. VanVleet is listed at 6’0” while Lowry is 6’1”. Curry and Thompson are 6’3” and 6’7”, respectively, and will shoot right over the top of smaller defenders. Just ask Portland how that works.

Green is 6’6”, meaning he has the kind of size — and plays the kind of defense — the Raptors will need on the perimeter in this series. If he is still slumping and not an offensive threat, the Warriors will be able to help off him and cause more trouble. The Raptors need Green to be a threat teams cannot help off of again.

5. Toronto cannot have one of its historically disastrous Game Ones.

Toronto came into these playoffs with a reputation of blowing Game 1s in ugly fashion — and then lived up to that billing. The Raptors lost big to the Orlando Magic in the first game of the first round. In the Eastern Conference Finals, they led by as many as 13 in the second half but didn’t score on their final seven possessions and blew the chance to steal Game 1 on the road.

Toronto bounced back handily in both of those series to win handily — that will not be the same against the Warriors.

Game 1 sets up well for Toronto: The Raptors are home, the Warriors have been off for nine days and should be rusty, plus there is no Kevin Durant. Toronto needs to win this game, both because of all that and for the confidence — drop Game 1 and the doubts about if they can match up with the Warriors will creep in. This is a different team on a different stage than Toronto has faced before.

The Raptors need to put a little doubt in the mind of the Warriors on Thursday night.

Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo: Agents will position me to succeed ‘with the team or another team’

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s moment has arrived.

He won Most Valuable Player, yes. But he’s also the center of speculation as he approached 2021 unrestricted free agency. He could head that off by signing a super-max extension with the Bucks this summer.

In the meantime, every word he says will be scrutinized for clues about his future.

That includes grainy video today from Greece, where – because Milwaukee already got bounced from the playoffs – Antetokounmpo conducted a conference call with reporters and an interview on NBA TV about his award.

The Bucks’ season is so far in the rearview mirror, Antetokounmpo already met with Bucks ownership and returned home. Now, attention turns to his long-term outlook.

Antetokounmpo:

I have two great agents that help with that, and I know they’re going to put me in the best situation to be successful with the team or another team. But at the end of the day, I had a great conversation with the owner. And as I know so far, we’re on the same page. And I want to be in Milwaukee for the rest of my career. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to want the same thing, which is a championship.

As long as everybody is on the same page and as long as everybody is fighting for the same thing … every single day, which is to be a champion, I don’t see why not be in Milwaukee for the next 15 years?

I believe Antetokounmpo prefers to find a way to stay with the Bucks. But even while professing his loyalty, Antetokounmpo had made clear he doesn’t hold blind allegiance to Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo’s agent, Alex Saratsis, said in February, “Everything is open.”

Yet, this is the first time I recall Antetokounmpo himself so directly mentioning the possibility of joining “another team.”

The other time he supposedly said something like that, he claimed he was misquoted.

Of course, you could focus on other portions of his responses today like: “I want to be in Milwaukee for the rest of my career.” Yet, there’s that “we’ve got to want the same thing, which is a championship” caveat.

Two major questions:

1. How willing are the Bucks to pay the luxury tax to maximize Milwaukee’s title chances?

2. Even with a financial commitment from ownership, how equipped are the Bucks to win after a couple years of shortcuts?

Antetokounmpo must evaluate.

But he’s not just putting the onus on the organization. He spoke about working to continuing to improve, doing his part to achieve his main goal.

When talking about his 2019 MVP, Antetokounmpo said at the time, “Please, after this day, don’t call me MVP because until I win it again next year.”

Is he ready to be called MVP now?

Antetokounmpo:

Don’t call me MVP. Don’t call me two-times MVP until I’m a champion.

LeBron James surpasses Michael Jordan in career MVP voting shares

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Giannis Antetokounmpo won MVP.

As for the rest of the voting?

Here are the results with first-, second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-place votes and total voting points (10-7-5-3-1 points from first to fifth):

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks): 85-16-0-0-0-962

2. LeBron James (Lakers): 16-84-1-0-0-753

3. James Harden (Rockets): 0-1-64-10-10-367

4. Luka Doncic (Mavericks): 0-0-14-36-22-200

5. Kawhi Leonard (Clippers): 0-0-9-31-30-168

6. Anthony Davis (Lakers): 0-0-5-14-15-82

7. Chris Paul (Thunder): 0-0-3-1-8-26

8. Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers): 0-0-1-4-6-23

9. Nikola Jokic (Nuggets): 0-0-2-2-2-18

10. Pascal Siakam (Raptors): 0-0-2-1-4-17

11. Jimmy Butler (Heat): 0-0-0-2-3-9

12. Jayson Tatum (Celtics): 0-0-0-0-1-1

No, LeBron didn’t win. Nor should he have.

But the only other player in the top eight of voting still alive in the playoffs? His Lakers teammate, Anthony Davis. LeBron has a prime opportunity to bolster his legacy with another championship.

In the meantime, LeBron also boosts his resumé even with his runner-up finish.

LeBron received 753 voting points. A unanimous MVP would’ve received 1,010 voting points. So, with 75% of that total, LeBron gets .75 MVP voting shares.

That puts him ahead of Michael Jordan on the career MVP-voting-shares leaderboard:

Getting a vote every year of his career, LeBron also tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for most seasons receiving an MVP vote:

A big caveat: MVP ballots had just one or three slots prior to 1981, when they went to the current five-player format. So, LeBron has had more opportunities to get lower-ballot votes.

Another caveat: LeBron’s lone fifth-place vote last season came from NBA.com fan voting.

But he didn’t just sneak onto the back end of ballots this year – even at age 35. Only Karl Malone, who won 1999 MVP at 35, has finished top two while so old.

And LeBron has been receiving MVP votes since he was a teenager.

He didn’t get the trophy that will endure. But this silver-medal finish still reflects just how incredible his career has been – and continues to be.

To Bam Adebayo, Heat game days are always Mother’s Day

Heat star Bam Adebayo
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Miami center Bam Adebayo went into the locker room at halftime of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals knowing that he wasn’t doing enough.

He didn’t need to see video. Or talk to Heat teammates. Or check the stats.

He only needed to think of his mother.

“That first half wasn’t me and I had to reboot myself, man,” Adebayo said. “So, you ask yourself: Where do you come from and what’s your why? What’s your why? And for me, that’s my mom.”

Marilyn Blount, this was for you. Adebayo nearly outscored the Boston Celtics by himself in the third quarter, the Heat turned the game around and went on to win 106-101 Thursday night to take a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals — putting the kid who grew up in a single-wide trailer with a mom making something like $15,000 a year two wins away from the NBA Finals.

Adebayo had four points at the half, and the Heat were down by 13. He had 17 in the second half, when Miami outscored Boston by 18.

“Games are long and you just have to figure out different ways to impact winning,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And Bam, he understands that.”

It wasn’t just Adebayo in the second half, which is the brilliance of this Heat team — it’s never just one guy. Adebayo had 17 points after halftime on 8-for-10 shooting, Goran Dragic had 16 points in the final two quarters, Tyler Herro had more rebounds than anyone after halftime and Jimmy Butler made three steals in the final 3:40 to help Miami finish off matters.

“I’m happy to be on this team with these guys because everybody here has a different story,” Adebayo said. “We all come from nothing and that’s what’s beautiful about this team.”

He may have come from nothing. Right now, for a Miami team that is 10-1 so far in this postseason to match the best start in franchise playoff history, he’s doing everything.

He had the game-saving block of a Jayson Tatum dunk attempt in the final seconds of Game 1 of the East finals, made the NBA’s All-Defensive team, became an All-Star for the first time and won the skills competition at All-Star weekend.

He’s averaging 16.8 points, 11 rebounds and 5.1 assists so far in the playoffs; the only two players who have done that, at his age of 22 or less, in a full postseason are Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley.

“He knows what makes him tick, what makes him go,” Butler said. “He knows why he’s playing the game. Spo always says, ‘What’s your why?’ He gets it. He understands. He knows that we need him to play at an extremely high level to be successful. He’s an All-Star, All-Defensive Player. He’s everything for us.”

Adebayo could agree this offseason, whenever free agency starts, to a contract that will set him up for life, set his mother up for whatever she wants as well. He’s already looking at houses for her; these days, she’s got an apartment in the same building where her son lives, just down the street from the arena that the Heat call home.

He doesn’t hide from the past. He doesn’t forget having nothing. It doesn’t embarrass him. It inspires him.

“That competitive nature comes out when I feel like I’m playing bad and when things aren’t going right,” Adebayo said. “I think about how she fought through struggle. I feel like she was in the gym tonight. It was like I could hear her in my ear. I watched her get knocked down and get back up so many times. You see that for 18 years straight, you take that load on and feel that responsibility. And my responsibility is to provide for my mom, and the best way to make sure I can do that is to help us win.”

They’re winning. They’re the surprise of the bubble, in the sense that they’re the lowest seed — Miami was No. 5 in the East — still standing.

Two more wins, and they’ll be going to the NBA Finals. Adebayo knows they’ll be the hardest wins to get.

“It sounds crazy,” Adebayo said. “Think about the beginning of the year, when we were telling everybody, ‘We have a chance, we have a chance.’ I remember having a conversation with a couple guys, playing out how the season was going to go before it started, and they said we were a No. 7, No. 8 seed and would get knocked out in the first round.

“I took that kind of personal,” he added. “You’re not going to sit here and just bash my team like that. We’ve proven to people now that we belong in the playoffs, that we’re taking this head on. We’re underdogs. That’s our mentality.”

He’s been one his whole life.

It seems to work for him — thanks to his mom.

“Watching her, I built my competitive nature,” Adebayo said. “That’s how I learned that the strong survive.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo wins NBA MVP for second straight year

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Giannis Antetokounmpo absolutely dominated the regular season.

That can be easy to forget. Coronavirus caused a lengthy interruption. In the spotlight when play resumed, Antetokounmpo underwhelmed. The Bucks flamed out in the second round.

So, this timing is awkward.

But MVP is a regular-season award, and Antetokounmpo has deservedly won his second straight.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news and the NBA confirmed it with an announcement later in the day.

Antetokounmpo had 85 of the 101 first-place votes from selected media members. LeBron James finished second with 16 first-place votes. James Harden was third in the voting, followed by Luka Doncic and Kawhi Leonard to round out the top five.

Anthony Davis finished sixth, Chris Paul seventh in the voting.

Antetokounmpo’s performance comes as speculation intensifies about his future in Milwaukee.

He’ll be eligible for a super-max extension this offseason. If he bypasses it, he’ll also be eligible for a super-max contract in 2021 free agency.

Because of this award, Antetokounmpo will now also be eligible to sign a super-max deal in 2022 free agency.

Maybe he won’t be a free agent that offseason. But this opens his options if he takes a shorter contract to let league-wide revenue rise post-pandemic and/or further assess the Bucks.

Antetokounmpo has that type of leverage. He led the NBA with 52 double-doubles and had 17 games with at least 30 points and 15 rebounds – 14 more than any other player.

At just 25, he put himself in the pantheon of players to win consecutive MVPs:

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Stephen Curry
  • LeBron James
  • Steve Nash
  • Tim Duncan
  • Michael Jordan
  • Magic Johnson
  • Larry Bird
  • Moses Malone
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • Wilt Chamberlain
  • Bill Russell

Antetokounmpo has a bright future, especially with the mentality to fix his shortcomings. He must polish his skills (and maybe approach) to thrive in the playoffs. But it’s easy to project growth there.

Already, Antetokounmpo has the regular season solved.

He joins Michael Jordan (1988) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1994) as the only players to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Fun fact: Jordan’s Bulls also lost in the second round in five games the year he claimed both awards. It got better for Jordan and Chicago from there, eventually.

LeBron and James Harden finished second and third in some order for 2020 MVP.